Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Mastery of Carl Theodor Dreyer

I recently purchased the Dreyer Collection BFI BluRay boxset (I understand it is limited edition). I took the opportunity to watch together the 6 Dreyer films that I own. I had never before watched any films by Dreyer – I understood that he was well known in cinema but I was not prepared for the enormous impact that his works had on me.

The six films that I viewed (together with Vampyr which I do not own) are accepted as his most important works. With each film my sense that Dreyer was a major artist grew stronger. Now having watched these films I consider Dreyer to be one of cinema’s greatest artists.  I search for comparisons – Max Ophuls, Andrei Tarkovsky and Kieslowski (Dekalog, Three Colours, Double Life of Veronique). 

His films seem entirely satisfying – emotionally, aesthetically and technically. They have a profound sense of depth that obviously comes from Dreyer himself. I compared them in my mind to the greatest works of classical music in their sense of perfection, genius, profound emotion and deep artistry.

I was struck by how modern a director Dreyer was – my knowledge of silent cinema is limited but the modernity of Master of the House and The Passion of Joan of Arc (“timeless” is more apt for this film) really struck a chord with me and I cannot remember seeing any other silent films that felt so natural and real. When I watched Day of Wrath I was stunned at how modern it felt – it does not seem to have dated at all!

The BFI box set is a vital piece of cinema history that belongs in every film lover’s collection. The BluRay quality is superb and the set features great extras.

A note on the films that I watched:

Michael (1924) 22/4/15

2-DVD Set from Masters of Cinema – it is wonderful that MOC brought out this film that would otherwise likely be forgotten. The edition contains 2 versions of the film and a film commentary by Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg, who calls this Dreyer’s first masterpiece. I would say that when compared to the films that lie ahead it is a minor masterpiece.

I was struck by how natural the acting was – the typical exaggerated style of the silent era was mostly absent from this film and I appreciated that aspect of the film.

I found the film to be enchanting! The performances were superb and pointed towards Dreyer being very skilled at working with actors. I really noticed how effective that Dreyer used close-ups. The close-ups did not feel like a dramatic tool but as a way to get closer to the hearts of the characters.

I was intrigued by the ending of the film – Dreyer avoids the clich├ęs that we have come to expect and I was extremely satisfied when the film concluded. My curiosity for Dreyer was growing. I felt this to be a very considered and mature work – I am certain that it will improve upon rewatching.

Masters of Cinema reprinted this film in recent years and I urge all those interested to purchase it before it disappears (maybe forever) from the DVD format.

Master of the House (1925) 25/4/15

The BFI BluRay image is spectacular for a film of this age. I note that the Criterion edition contains a commentary from Tybjerg and I would be very curious to hear that.

I absolutely loved this film! This family drama gripped me from beginning to end! The opening statements on screen clearly present the strong feminist perspective of this film – the widespread lack of appreciation for the tireless effort that women bring to family life!

Together with Michael this film is classified as being a part of the kammerspiel genre – this genre refers to theatrical chamber plays.

I have always enjoyed the everyday presented on film from Italian NeoRealism to modern Iranian cinema. So this film really appealed to me. 

Great works of art have that intangible quality where everything feels just right and I felt that with this film (and all subsequent Dreyer films in this series – slight exception with Gertrud).

The acting feels completely natural – in this respect it advances on Michael. The only acting that seemed somewhat theatrical and exaggerated is that of Mads, however her role is quite distinct and deliberate – she is the agent for change in this film. She realises our desire to see Victor belittled, punished and shamed – as Victor behaves like a grown-up spoilt child so he will be scolded as befits a child.

This film is a testament to the power of imagery. Despite the absence of dialogue the emotional state of Ida is powerfully conveyed to us. Every gesture and facial expression feels authentic. The husband is also brilliantly portrayed – his selfish, brooding and self-pitying nature is perfectly realised without ever veering into parody or exaggeration.

The family life is portrayed in wonderful detail – I know that a certain kind of viewer will find it dull but family life is amongst the most important and fascinating dramas of the human experience.

When we enter the Second Act of the film the tone changes. The action now becomes directed towards deflating pomposity, attacking arrogance, punishing selfishness and humiliating unwielding pride.

It is the wise elderly women who take up the challenge of disciplining Victor as an adult just as they did when he was a boy decades earlier. It is the strength and integrity of the female which shines in this film – their wisdom, compassion, emotional intelligence, determination to make the best of circumstances, perseverance and teamwork.

As the story becomes a kind of game aimed at changing Victor’s character it loses some of it’s realism – however it never veers into parody. I was overjoyed to see the transformation in Victor and heartened by the positive life that now awaits the family. The film gave me a feeling of hope that through hard work we can all bring about such changes in our lives.

The film is extremely satisfying – nothing feels forced. It is a heartwarming drama. Beautifully acted. Modern feminist viewpoint.

To me the film is a masterpiece.

I really enjoyed the score composed by Lars Fjeldmose – I would be very curious to hear the reconstructed original score on the Criterion disc)

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (!928) 28/4/15

Masters of Cinema BluRay. The image quality really impressed me – there is great detail in the imagery. I have yet to delve into the impressive book which comes with the release. I was somewhat disappointed that we did not get a visual essay on the significance of this work of art. I also have seen people refer to their love for the Voices of Light score which is only included on the Criterion DVD (I own a copy and look foward to watching the film with this score).

I was aware of the reputation that this film holds however it far exceeded my expectations! The film seemed timeless to me – it seemed neither old nor modern!

The film combines drama and realism in a way that feels completely organic. The depravity and tragedy of the drama is accentuated by the camera angles, the physical details of the characters (picking their ears, grimacing etc.), the editing and the use of close-ups or the use of the camera scanning across characters. Yet I never felt manipulated because the emotion felt so sincere and authentic.

Dreyer seems to be disturbed and highly critical of the institutions and their dogmas and victimisation of others: in Master of the House it was the patriarchy and here it is the church institution. There is no purity in the institution – they are subservient to the British Occupation. These characters use the rules of the church/Name of God to justify their destructive nature, desire for power over others and lack of humanity. How they have blackened the name of God!

The church was immersed in darkness during this period – no one seems to be appalled at the prospect of murdering this woman. Even the character who declares Joan to be a saint does not defend her and abandons her to be condemned in a show trial.

Renee Falconetti is praised with giving one of cinema’s greatest performances. I was not prepared for how timeless and moving that her performance would be – we witness a woman of indestructible faith and courage! She is betrayed and belittled by the congregation yet she never loses her dignity or her resolve. Even under the extreme threat of being burnt alive she maintains her faith.

I was in awe of the seamless blend of technical virtuosity and artistry. I watched the film without a score at 20fps – as recommended by Masters of Cinema. I was somewhat apprehensive at watching a film without any sound however the experience was entirely satisfying and reinforced the power of the images. 

It is a film that stands apart – I have never seen anything like it! One of the most profound cinematic experiences I have ever had. I feel that watching this film without a score matured me as a cinephile.

Day of Wrath (1943) 6/5/15

This is the 4th film in my Dreyer series – each film confirms Dreyer’s mastery.

The Passion ofJoan of Arc was something of a financial failure. His next film was Vampyr in 1932 – I have not seen it – and that was also financially unsuccessful. He then had to wait until 1943 to make Day of Wrath. 

This is an extraordinary film. The acting is superb – so heartfelt and sincere. The film feels very realistic despite the fact that some of the roles are quite theatrical (for example the mother, the witch, Anne).

Dreyer explores so many facets of humanity in this film. Again we have the church institution which is full of superstition, fear, cowardice, pride, violence, ignorance and a lack of compassion. Interestingly (as in Passion of Joan) the church are forcing a confession and savagely burning a woman to death.

Absalon is a complex character. Our initial introduction shows us a sympathetic character – a gentle husband and a good father. However as the film progresses we see how his elevated position in the church deludes him into believing his actions are somehow sanctioned by God. His honesty is shallow and self-serving. His position in the church makes him so esteemed that he can avoid questioning his own actions.

Anne is a wonderful and mercurial character – brilliantly played by Lisbeth Movin! She is the only person we see who is truly appalled by the burning of Marthe. She has been forced into a marriage with a much older man – she has obviously accepted that her marriage will be childless and devoid of intimacy. She is coldly scorned by her mother-in-law. I feel real sympathy for her.

Dreyer brilliantly leaves so many questions around Anne unanswered. Does she possess some special power or is she simply wishing that her restricted life circumstances will change? 

Dreyer displays great understanding and sympathy for women (as in the previous 2 films also) – he is very sensitive to the needs of women and of their need to feel appreciated.

Dreyer casts a critical eye over institutions which are masculine – the patriarch in Master of the House, the judges at Joan’s trial, church officials in Day of Wrath. These institutions are selfish, dishonest, violently cruel and lack a sense of humanity.

As in Joan of Arc we have implied torture – the scene is truly harrowing and worsened by the church officials looking on dispassionately. We have a repeat of a burning at the stake – the physical terror and agony is visceral!

The visual style of the film is striking: the black and white contrast of the period clothing,. There is a contrast between the pastoral outdoor scenes (laced with affection and joy) and the gloomy interiors. There is a striking use of shadows through the film.

In the scene where Absalon dies the interplay between him and Anne is almost supernatural – it is full of mystery and Dreyer leaves it open to interpretation.

I feel there are so many layers in this film: critique of the church institution, patriarchal society, womens’ role and desires, capital punishment, superstition, conservative-fascist desire to destroy opposing viewpoints.
This film felt more modern to me than any other film I have seen from this era. 

I reflected on the film noir genre and the idea of a femme fatale. This film seemed to approach this theme in a much more complex way than the Hollywood incarnation. 

I was somewhat reminded of My Cousin Rachel – although Dreyer’s film is much more complex.
A Masterpiece – I will be so excited to rewatch this film!

Ordet (1955)   7/5/15

It is hard to understand that, aside from some short features, Dreyer had to wait until 1955 to make his next feature.

I have great difficulty describing the effect that this film had on me.

Dreyer does not explain many of the details relating to the story. For example I did not understand the divide between the local/traditional Christianity and the new form as represented by the Borgen family. It is only late in the film that I learnt that the Borgens had rejected the austerity of the traditional Christianity.

I was somewhat confused by Johannes – I did not get any understanding of why his character had changed so dramatically. When I rewatch the film I will look on Johannes in an entirely different light and I look foward to seeing what my observations will be.

The film has so many fascinating characters. I was so drawn to the warmth of Ingres and struck how her femininity is so much warmer and more gracious than the religious code which guides Morten Borgen.

The ending really shocked me and yet it felt completely organic and sincere. There was a sense of purity to it that really struck me. It moved me to tears and had a profound impact on me.

Gertrude (1964) 8/5/15

Immedietly I was struck by how different the film felt – I sensed that I was in the world of Antonioni’s La Notte or a similar French New Wave film.

The characters are full of doubts and uncertainties – they philosophise and analyse their emotions. They belong in an upper middle class environment where they are allowed to indulge and pre-occupy themselves with their philosophies and angst. 

I loved the slow rhythm of the film. There was so much to admire – beautiful set design and photography. Wonderful use of music – the scene with the piano/singing duet was exquisite. There was a very lavish feel to the film.

I was disappointed with the final scene – neither character convinced me that 40 years had passed. Their philosophising seemed somewhat egotistical and meaningless.

Overall an exquisite film. I was surprised by the questioning-philosophical tone of the film that felt different to Dreyer’s previous works. I will be curious to see how it feels on a second viewing.

My Metier (1995) 9/5/15

Brilliant documentary. Dramatic music and narration. After watching the films I had a strong desire to learn about Dreyer, the man. I really felt that he must have been a remarkable human being.

It was lovely to hear Dreyer speak about his admiration for the French New Wave. I was overjoyed to see him with Anna Karina (a fellow Dane) and I was reminded of the images of her watching Joan of Arc in Vivre Sa Vie.

Dreyer seemed to be a very humble man. He had great dignity and was generous in his comments on the value of films geared towards the masses. Despite the difficulties he had making feature films (4 films between 1932 and 1964!) there seemed to be no trace of bitterness.

I watched some of the short features – I really liked “Good Mothers”.

This BFI boxset is highly  recommended! There are plenty of extras to delve into and the films look wonderful on BluRay. I understand that it is limited edition so do not miss the opportunity to own these great films on BluRay! This box set takes pride of place amongst my film collection.

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